Defying stereotypes about college students’ preference for loungewear, one can find students sporting suits at any given day at the Ross School of Business Building. With a sleek, modern exterior and an interior that hosts a private gym, cafeteria and frequent visists from top recruiters, some students have remarked that the building itself resembles a traditional business atmosphere.

Belying the Business School’s traditional business image, however, is a school that considers one of its core values to be positive business. While this may be a core value, some students have noted classes and recruitment efforts seem to focus heavily on finance, consulting and marketing opportunities, leaving those who are pursuing a business degree to enter other social impact or nonprofit careers disappointed.

Jamie Jacobson joined Ross as a pre-admitted freshman, hoping to use her business degree in work with nonprofit or political advocacy organizations.

“The original impression I got was that it was sort of this new age, more progressive business school, and I really liked that perception of it,” Jacobson said. “They really talked about social impact and nonprofit sector and things like that. That’s kind of what I wanted to do, and still probably want to do.”

After spending three semesters at the Business School, though, Jamie felt the culture there emphasized certain careers, while forgetting about others. 

“I felt very pressured to follow the typical Ross career path, whether that be investment banking, consulting or even marketing, and I’d say marketing was the least popular of the traditional business tracks people tend to follow,” Jacobson said. “There was always this, ‘Well, a lot of people don’t do the traditional recruitment and we support you through all of that.’ But all of the emails that I got and consistent talk about recruitment was all consulting, finance, investment banking and sometimes marketing. It felt very constraining.”

Jacobson acknowledged institutional programs for students pursuing social impact exist, but said a majority of Business students were interested in traditional career paths, which is where administration focused its efforts on.

“It’s really tough, because I think there are plenty of people like me who want to do social impact, and Ross does have some options there and some programs there,” Jacobson said. “To a lot of students who don’t end up wanting to do that, my perception of that is that they feel that all the social impact and nonprofit talk is kind of a waste of their time, whereas on the other side I never really intend to use accounting, so that kind of felt like not a good fit either.”

Business senior Liz Fawley also plans to pursue social impact work. While Fawley admits it can sometimes be difficult to not follow a traditional business path, she believes the Business administration is trying to offer opportunities for students like her.

“Our dean and associate dean are very pro-positive business and talk a lot about developing future business leaders to create a more positive future,” she said. “They really are passionate about this –– I really do think that it’s not just all talk. They’ve spent a lot of money on all the programs.”

According to Norman Bishara, associate dean for undergraduate and early career programs at the Business School, the school has over 100 organizations dedicated to social impact and nonprofit work. One such organization Fawley is involved in, Net Impact, combines students from all majors to create positive social and environmental change. Finding this niche within the Business School played a key role in her decision to continue with her field of study, Fawley said.

“One time this summer, I had to teach a Ross student what a union is,” said Fawley. “In Net Impact, everyone is on the same page. You can find your community within Ross, and that is one reason I’ve been able to stay level-headed throughout the entire process.”

Bishara stresses while the Business School values positive business, the administration does not wish to force students into one career path or another.

“We are the positive business school and have been for a while now. More than other schools around the world, we really care about business’ impact on society,” Bishara said. “One thing I don’t really love hearing is, ‘Ross wants this.’ There is no Ross desire for students, other than we want our students to be engaged, have good lives, be good citizens, be good leaders, and it’s not in a certain field or another. That’s not what we’re designing at all. Yeah, there are students who want to go in certain directions, and we want to support that, so we do that for any student who wants to go into any role. I think there’s tons of opportunities, and so if people aren’t finding them, that’s a failure in some way.”

Jacobson said while the two sides of the Business School each had strengths, but seemed to compete with each other rather than work in tandem.

“Honestly, I think that they’re in a very strange crux right now, where they have a lot of kids and a lot of alumni and just a lot of people expecting them to continue sending all these people into Wall Street and to continue developing really, really good business students for that, but then they also have this other goal of being a social impact business school,” Jacobson said. “And I think right now bridging the two identities of the business school, as being this elite institution that connects really big firms with exceptional, well-performing, passionate students, there’s that side of it, but there’s also the side of trying to develop a social impact focus curriculum, a social impact focused recruiting process and I think it’s really difficult for those two to connect.”

Business senior Mohammad Shaikh hoped to pursue positive business in his studies, but found the school’s curriculum did not live up to its branding of being a positive business school.

“I think that Ross brands itself as a business school that cares about positive business, positive business being defined as business working to solve society’s biggest problems,” Shaikh said. “If you look at their website, what they’re about, that’s how they brand themselves. What it looks like right now, it seems like they don’t really care about it. They sort of just weave it into their curriculum without making it central. It seems like the core business classes that you take at any business school are 100 percent the central component and then impact positive business initiatives are kind of wrapped around very subtly.”

However, Shaikh believes Business School Dean Scott DeRue may change the culture in a few years.

“Anytime (DeRue) goes on anything, he talks about (positive business),” Shaikh said. “I do think that they’re working to make that a bigger part of their vision, because he goes on different trips, and this is his thing. I think that in future years, because he just started two years ago I believe, I think in coming years he’s going to hopefully carry it out.”

Jacobson thinks making it easier for students to double major would allow students pursuing social impact adequate space in their schedule to take the classes or electives they need to supplement their business degree.

“I felt like they’re telling me to be social impact focused, but then I’m focused mostly on getting good grades for recruiting, recruiting for a bunch of firms, to be perfectly honest, their main goal was not social impact,” Jacobson said. “As someone who was trying to do a dual degree, I didn’t have room in my schedule at all to take an easy class to inflate my grades.”

Shaikh believes the solution lies with a realignment of what society should value.

“On a larger scale, the smartest people in my class don’t go into the impact-oriented careers because they’re not valued by society,” Shaikh said. “What’s valued by society? The positions that, in my opinion, contribute to the problem. That’s the problem. There should be an incentive structure that’s built up, such that if I’m someone who wants to go into a career that helps others, and I’m very smart and qualified, I should have a very clear avenue to that path. And in my opinion, even if you’re not someone who’s super passionate about impact, I think that the world demands that there’s more talented people in these spaces that are helping others.”

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